The phone call came in the middle of the night last month, when my brother Todd and I were visiting our father in a suburb of Portland, Ore. Todd’s fiancée, Dorothy Parvaz, also my good friend and former colleague, was missing. An editor from Al-Jazeera English, where she works, told Todd that no one had heard from her in 24 hours, not since she left Qatar to report on the violence in Syria.
As a female war correspondent whose friends had been kidnapped by the Taliban, I figured I was ideally suited to handle such crises. But I wasn’t. With that call, my family became part of a horrible club I had never thought about before: the people left behind. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 145 journalists were detained worldwide at the end of last year, the most recent number available. Each of those cases, like Dorothy’s, means a larger web of loved ones and families facing their own kind of detention, prisons without bars.
My family holed up that first weekend. We didn’t tell anyone. We were told “quiet diplomacy” was the best hope of resolving this. We waited for Todd’s phone to ring, for news.
That Monday morning — the day after Osama bin Laden’s death — Al-Jazeera English announced publicly that Dorothy was missing. I called her closest friends in Seattle, some of whom had already heard. We called in favours. We heard conflicting advice. We tried to use our accumulated knowledge and instincts as reporters to figure out what could be happening and to get media attention, difficult with the world riveted on Pakistan.
There were days of this, this hopeless feeling, this frenzy. Todd went to Vancouver, Canada, to be with Dorothy’s father, Fred. I flew home to New York. Dorothy’s former colleagues and friends from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where she had worked for almost 10 years, improvised a media campaign. From around the world, friends and journalist groups stepped up. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera English pursued her release. With no idea what might work, we pushed every button we could think to push, over and over.
Some buttons felt absurd. We tweeted, asking people to follow @FreeDorothy. We posted messages to Facebook telling people to “like” the page Free Dorothy Parvaz. We changed our pictures online to a poster asking someone, anyone, to “Free Dorothy.” We sent emails to Dorothy, missives into the ether.
At some point, the Syrian authorities said they had deported Dorothy to Iran — she holds Iranian citizenship along with her U.S. and Canadian citizenships— on May 1. Later, we would learn that prior to deporting her, the Syrians had held Dorothy in a prison, where her time was punctuated by the screams of men being tortured.
We feared the worst in Iran, that she would get in trouble for her past coverage of the Iranian regime, that she would become a pawn in a global power struggle. We worried that she would enter the limbo of freelance journalist Shane Bauer and his friend Joshua Fattal, arrested in 2009 while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border. We worried that she would be hurt, that she was already hurt. This is the fate of the people on the outside: Lacking even the smallest facts about Dorothy, we conjured up worst-case scenarios.
At least Dorothy had the support of the international journalism community and her employer. What’s happened so far this year is a potent reminder of what’s happened to journalism in the past few years. Many journalists have been detained, injured and even killed; the world is a more dangerous place. But as major news organisations have scaled back overseas coverage, freelancers have filled the void. This has meant that journalists with very little institutional backing are out there trying to tell the stories of the world, mostly on the cheap. Photographer Anton Hammerl, shot in Libya in early April, was a freelancer. Bauer is a freelancer. No large media organisation is pushing for his release.
At points while Dorothy was gone, I grew despondent. So did others close to her. I bolted awake at 4 a.m. daily. I sent emails. I planned, hunted for crumbs, reported the story, tried to tell the world. Doing something, anything, seemed better than sitting still. A core group of Dorothy’s supporters encouraged people to write about Dorothy whenever and wherever possible.
Me, I tried to write Dorothy’s story, but it was difficult. Writing made the vanishing real, made me have to think about her more than I already had. Whenever I saw my brother on TV, pleading for her release, something inside cracked. I dreamed that my brother and Dorothy and I were running and she fell down a rabbit hole and we just couldn’t catch her.
One morning inside a bank, I heard the background music and started to cry. Background music! Had I lost my mind? It was the song “Under Pressure” by Queen, part of our soundtrack during a newspaper strike in Seattle.
For days, Iran didn’t even admit to having her. And then, shockingly, on May 18, after 19 days of detention, Dorothy was released with no explanation. She called my brother from her cell phone once she cleared customs in Doha, Qatar. That same day, four other journalists detained for six weeks in Libya2014all freelancers2014were released. But dozens of other journalists went to sleep that night still imprisoned.
We don’t know why Dorothy was freed, which magic button was pushed. But we now know what it’s like to be left behind. On Wednesday, I finally made a call I had been putting off — to Cindy Hickey, Shane Bauer’s mother. She had offered to talk to me the week before. I had been too overwhelmed. But truthfully, I also didn’t want to compare Dorothy’s case to the hikers, because that just seemed so impossible to live with.
I asked Hickey how she could possibly cope for 21 months, talking only twice on the phone to her son, for a total of six minutes. How did she handle holidays? Her job? His birthday? She said the family ignored holidays. That she had closed her business more than a year ago. That she writes her son almost every day, knowing that he probably never gets the letters. That on his 28th birthday, she made Shane a videotape of riding a horse, because they used to ride together. And then she sent it off again, into the ether, knowing it would probably never arrive.